Ralph Proctor Jr. remembers a Hill District that is very different from the neighborhood portrayed in the media and in history books. The 84-year-old Community College of Allegheny County professor grew up on Wylie Avenue and his life story is in many ways the Hill’s story. He brings it all to life in his new book, “Song of the Hill: Life, Love, Legacy.”
“I wrote ‘Song of the Hill’ to talk about what was it like. What was it like for children coming up in the Hill? What were the families like? What kind of life did we live on a daily basis,” Proctor says.
Another reason for writing the book? Proctor wanted to ensure that the Hill that he remembered isn’t forgotten —erased along with the homes, churches, nightclubs and businesses that made it special.
“Much was lost,” Proctor writes. But a lot also survives — if you know where to look for it. “Song of the Hill” is one place to look; the stories yet to be told embedded in the memories of longtime Hill residents like him are another.
Proctor has worn many hats in a long and distinguished career. While at Pitt — as a student and as a teacher — he pioneered the use of oral history here. Besides a stint in the military, he has worked as a photographer (many of the photos in the book are his own) and he had his own radio and television shows.
His civil rights work put a target on his back: “I appeared on two assassination lists … I either would be assassinated or put in jail permanently.” An earlier book published in 2022, “Voices from the Firing Line: A Personal Account of the Pittsburgh Civil Rights Movement,” tells that chapter of his life.
A lot has been written about the Hill’s history, from newspaper features to academic journal articles and doctoral dissertations. Though no history is the final word on what happened in the past, Proctor says that much of what has been written about the Hill is wrong. Whether it’s folks he dubs in the book “Negro-ologists” — “a white person who often has received a grant to study the thinking, feelings, and behaviors” of African Americans — or armchair observers, Black and white, who never visited the Hill and got to know its people and rich history.
Proctor has a Ph.D. in history from the University of Pittsburgh. His expertise in Hill District history draws as much from his academic studies as it does from person experiences. Because of that, he fields lots of requests for information posed by people who have read existing histories.
“It appeared to me that when they were referencing books and articles that had been written, those books and articles were incorrect about the Hill,” Proctor says. “I could not imagine where their information came from.”
Those histories Proctor cites tend to sensationalize the Hill’s history by focusing on crime, poverty, jazz clubs and baseball. Proctor thinks there’s much more to tell.
“So my thing was how did folks get this wrong? And they continue to perpetuate it.”
Families like his are lost in the mix: stable, working-class families not wrapped up in extraordinary activities like bootlegging, numbers running, entertainment or Negro Leagues baseball. Whether it’s authoritative books like Mark Whitaker’s 2019 “Smoketown,” which Proctor says misses the mark, or August Wilson’s plays that fictionalize the Hill’s people and history, Proctor wants to reset the ways people think and write about the Hill.
Proctor’s family came to Pittsburgh from North Carolina. His father went to work in a Logan Street market owned by Max Fierman, a white Jew whose parents emigrated from Russia. The Proctors lived in the Middle Hill and Fierman’s market was in the Lower Hill.
“I spent a lot of time there and I did not see the abject poverty,” Proctor recalls. “It did exist, but there were pockets. But as you moved from the Lower Hill to the Middle Hill, that changed.”
The city stigmatized the entire Hill to justify urban renewal, Proctor says. As a result, all of the Lower Hill’s ills were magnified and mapped onto the entire Hill District.
“So there was a time when the Lower Hill, of course, had drunks. Had drug addicts. Had crime,” Proctor says. “But they didn’t talk about what else was going on in the Lower Hill, that it was essentially a United Nations where people of all colors, creeds, nationalities, got along beautifully.”
“Song of the Hill” is as much a nostalgic celebration of the Hill that Proctor remembers as it is a eulogy for a lost community.
“The Hill of my youth is long gone, along with a large part of my soul,” Proctor writes in the book’s epilogue.
That loss is underscored in an email he sent responding to a request for recommendations for sites to photograph for this story: “Unfortunately, most of the places, from my youth, are long gone from the Hill. The last time I took a ride through there I could find nothing that was there that was the same.”